August 10, 2008—The Washington Post’s ombudsman says the newspaper’s original source for a quote that was used to portray Barack Obama as a megalomaniac now disputes the Post’s negative interpretation that has spread across cable TV, the Internet and even into a John McCain attack ad.
Post ombudsman Deborah Howell also acknowledges that neither Post reporter who relied on the misleading quote spoke directly with the source, checked out its accuracy, or made any independent effort to determine the context of the remark, which was made to a closed Democratic caucus meeting on Capitol Hill on July 29.
In her column, “The Anger Over an Obama Quote,” Howell adds that she has been contacted by about 160 people, including congressional officials, who said the Post twisted the meaning of the quote by taking it out of context. But the newspaper still refuses to run a full-scale correction or a clarification or even print a letter protesting the distortion.
Howell’s column, appearing in the Post’s Aug. 10 editions, does chide the two reporters – Dana Milbank and Jonathan Weisman – for not checking out the disputed quote more carefully but her criticism is mild.
Generally, she treats the quote as a case study on the risks of anonymous sources, not a clear-cut case of shoddy journalism. She also demeans critics of the Post's handling of the issue by calling them “partisans.”
“An anonymous secondhand quotation from Sen. Barack Obama at a closed House Democratic caucus meeting on July 29 caused an uproar among partisans; it is an excellent example of how the pernicious use of unnamed sources, so pervasive in Washington, can backfire on journalists and sources,” Howell wrote.
The quote – first appearing in Weisman’s online column and then as a centerpiece of Milbank’s print article depicting Obama as a delusional narcissist – had Obama saying, “This is the moment ... that the world is waiting for. ... I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.”
Milbank twinned this seemingly self-absorbed quote with the tight security that the Secret Service has placed around Obama to depict the Illinois senator as acting like he already was President, calling him the “presumptuous nominee.”
Jonathan Capehart, Milbank’s colleague from the Washington Post’s neoconservative editorial page, then took the point a step further on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show, citing the misleading quote to establish that Obama is an “uppity” black man. [Capehart himself is black.]
The show’s host, former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough, concluded that the quote virtually disqualified Obama from the presidency.
Yet, despite the quote’s significance, Howell’s column makes clear that neither Weisman nor Milbank spoke directly to the source who sent the partial quote to Weisman via e-mail. The two reporters also did nothing to determine the context, nor did they seek clarification from the Obama camp or other participants at the Democratic caucus.
As the quote spread across cable TV and the Internet, eyewitnesses to Obama’s comments began protesting that the Post’s quote had turned Obama’s meaning inside out, that he actually was saying that the European reaction to his trip wasn’t about him.
Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-South Carolina, said Obama’s comment was “in response to what one of the [House] members prefaced the question by,” a reference to the crowd of 200,000 that turned out to hear Obama speak in Berlin.
According to Clyburn, Obama “said, ‘I wish I could take credit for that, but I can't. Because it's not about me. It's about America. It's about the people of Germany and the people of Europe looking for a new hope, new relationships, as we go forward in the world.’ So, he expressly said that it's not about me.”
A House Democratic aide sent an e-mail to Fox News saying, “Lots of people are reading the quote about Obama being a symbol and getting it wrong. His entire point of that riff was that the campaign IS NOT about him.
“The Post left out the important first half of the sentence, which was something along the lines of: ‘It has become increasingly clear in my travel, the campaign, that the crowds, the enthusiasm, 200,000 people in Berlin, is not about me at all. It’s about America. I have just become a symbol ...’”
According to Howell’s column, one congressional aide said the “full quote” from Obama was, “It has become increasingly clear in my travel, the campaign – that the crowds, the enthusiasm, 200,000 people in Berlin, is not about me at all. It’s about America. I have just become a symbol.”
Howell also tracked down the original Weisman-Milbank source (still not identified) “who told me the quote didn’t reflect arrogance.”
In other words, there’s not a single witness (not even the original source) who supports the Weisman-Milbank spin on the partial quote. Nevertheless, since there was no tape of the meeting, “Post editors refused to publish a correction,” Howell wrote.
Amazingly, the Post also has refused to publish any letters to the editor disputing the distortions in Milbank’s column. All the Post’s critics can expect, apparently, is the half-hearted lessons-learned column by Howell.
Among those lessons learned for reporters, Howell wrote: “Anonymous quotes should be used sparingly; this one wasn’t worth it. If you weren’t there, be careful about judging the context.”
Besides the quote distortion, some Post readers have protested Milbank’s interpretation of Secret Service protective measures for Obama as evidence of Obama’s arrogance, rather than reasonable steps by the Secret Service to defend against death threats aimed at the first African-American with a serious chance to be elected President.
In an online chat, Milbank responded to reader complaints as “whines” and deemed himself a “Whine Enthusiast.” [For more on Milbank’s column, see Consortiumnews.com’s “WPost Calls Out ‘Uppity’ Obama”]
Though many in the Washington press corps quickly recognized that the Post had botched the quote, few journalists dared speak out clearly against the city’s most powerful newspaper.
While most journalists avoided antagonizing the Post, the botched quote – the latest supposed proof of Obama’s arrogance – spread far and wide.
The quote even surfaced in a McCain attack video, entitled “The One,” which mocked Obama as a false Messiah who saw himself as a modern-day Moses. Some experts on Christian fundamentalism saw the ad as a message to right-wing extremists that Obama was the anti-Christ who must be stopped.
On the Internet, Obama-haters, including some still-angry supporters of Hillary Clinton, circulated the quote as further reinforcement of their views.
One Clinton diehard, Carolyn Kay of Makethemaccountable.com, forwarded to her mailing list a cartoon of Obama sitting on a toilet with his pants down, masturbating, as he gazed at himself in the mirror while thinking, “I have become the symbol of America returning to our best traditions.” [No, I won’t link to this cartoon.]
Sometimes the hatred of Obama – along with the eagerness to smear him – seems all-consuming, transforming usually rational people into purveyors of falsehoods and filth. Kay started her Web site in 2000 in reaction to the major media publishing distortions about Al Gore.
“It scared me to see how the mainstream media were propping up George Bush while faithfully reporting every stupid lie that the Bush campaign made up about Al Gore,” she wrote in 2003. “I’ll use every talent I possess and all my energy to try to bring back tolerance, decency, and generosity to the country I love.”
The painful irony is that Gore suffered the same kind of misquotes and distortions in 2000 that Obama is facing today.
For instance, the major news media endlessly repeated the apocryphal Gore quote, “I invented the Internet,” and reporters for the Washington Post and New York Times gave rise to another misquote about Gore’s role in the Love Canal case, “I was the one that started it all.”
In Gore’s case, too, the major news media was loathe to correct errors and instead let the falsehoods ripple across the nation, empowering a potent Bush campaign “theme” that Gore was “delusional.”
[For details on these and other misrepresentations about Gore, see Consortiumnews.com “Al Gore v. the Media” or our book, Neck Deep.]
Ombudsman Howell’s gentle critique of the sloppy reporting by Milbank and Weisman also stands in marked contrast to the severe punishments meted out to journalists who were faulted for not meeting the highest standards of journalism in criticism of George W. Bush.
Compare, for instance, what happened to four CBS producers and CBS News anchor Dan Rather when, during Campaign 2004, they went with a story on “60 Minutes II” that cited old memos as part of their evidence that a youthful George W. Bush had shirked his National Guard duty.
Right-wing bloggers immediately challenged the documents over what turned out to be the false belief that IBM typewriters in the early 1970s didn’t allow for superscripts for the “th” or “st” at the end of numbers. In fact, some did.
But the accusation of forged documents quickly spread through Fox News and other right-wing news outlets – as well as mainstream ones still nervous about challenging President Bush. CBS News ordered an outside investigation (using George H.W. Bush’s Attorney General Richard Thornburgh) and concluded that the documents (though not necessarily forgeries) required more vetting.
For failing to fully analyze the questioned documents, four CBS producers were fired, including Mary Mapes who had helped break the Abu Ghraib torture scandal only months earlier. The fallout also included CBS pushing their longtime anchor Dan Rather into retirement.
In other words, five professional careers were destroyed because the journalists didn’t go the extra mile in checking out some memos that – while themselves questionable – reflected what was undeniably true, that Bush had blown off a required flight physical and was getting favored treatment in the National Guard.
This central fact was confirmed by the secretary of Bush’s commander in a later interview. And to this day, no decisive evidence has been uncovered disproving the authenticity of the memos. [For more details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Bush Rule of Journalism.”]
However, just as any misstep in criticizing Bush or a powerful Republican will guarantee a fierce response and possibly the quick end to a long journalistic career, the opposite rule applies when trashing someone like Gore or Obama.
Then, even getting the story completely backwards doesn’t merit a timely correction or a published letter to the editor, let alone a reprimand or a firing.
This article is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.
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This story was published on August 12, 2008.